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John Lone stars as Pu Yi, emperor of China, who comes from a long history of a tradition that is irreversibly altered by two world wars and fierce political upheaval. Guided by his English mentor (Peter O'Toole), Pu Yi is forced to leave the lavish, protective walls of his kingdom. Somehow, he has to build a new life in a strange world he has always longed to explore, but has never really known.

Bernardo Bertolucci
John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O'Toole, Ruocheng Ying, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun
Writing Credits:
Mark Peploe

Not Rated.

Academy Awards:
Won for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Screenplay; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Cinematography; Best Costume Design; Best Sound; Best Film Editing; Best Original Score-Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Byrne, Cong Su.

Widescreen 2.35:1
English Dolby Surround 2.0
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 218 min.
Price: $29.98
Release Date: 2/23/1999

• Theatrical Trailer
• Production Notes

Score soundtrack

Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


The Last Emperor: Director's Cut (1987)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 12, 2007)

Lots of people - myself included - see movies we might otherwise skip simply because the Academy conferred upon them that mark of Best Picture distinction. I avoided 1987s The Last Emperor for years because it looked to me to be just another bloated, boring piece of "Oscar bait." Every year, starting in the fall, cinemas are inundated with movies that scream, "I'm important! I'm quality filmmaking! Lavish me with praise!" Most of these pictures turn out to be pretentious crap whose only purpose is to try to win awards. Long, somber, and pompous: such is the mark of the "Oscar bait" picture.

While I didn't find it to be too pretentious or pompous, The Last Emperor definitely was long and somber. In fact, the DVD offers the director's cut, which runs almost exactly one hour longer than did the US theatrical version. According to statistics, that increase in length makes the movie 34 percent more somber.

Ultimately, my reaction to The Last Emperor is that I didn't have much of a reaction. It bordered on being dull, but the plot offered enough intrigue to keep me going. Part of the problem with the film is that it documents an apparently boring man and focuses on him so strongly that all the exciting events that happen around him are excluded.

That last aspect makes perfect sense from a thematic point of view. Through much of his life, Pu Yi maintained a nominal position of authority but actually he was completely distanced from the reality of the world. According to this film, he wasn't even a witness to history; all these events occurred well out of his view.

As such, that means that the audience also has their view of the world restricted; the movie focusses on the life and times of Pu Yi to the exclusion of all else. Like I said, thematically this makes sense. It forces the audience to better appreciate and understand the contained nature of his life.

Unfortunately, from a cinematic point of view, it slows things down to an extreme. Not a whole lot happens in this movie that we actually witness. Pu Yi's a very passive character who simply reacts to the changes that occur around him. It's not until the conclusion of the movie that we see any actual growth in his character. Most of the time, he remains the same semi-inert figurehead.

I place part of the blame for that last problem on John Lone. He offers a decent portrayal of Pu Yi but I felt that he made the character far too likable. This is a guy who has been told since a very young age that he's virtually the king of the world and has been granted almost literally his every whim. However, he maintains little in the way of nastiness or arrogance as an adult. As Lone plays him, he seems like just your average Joe. I suppose it's probably helpful to have a sympathetic character in the lead, since we have to spend so much time with the guy, but I can't help but question the realism of the portrayal.

Also, to place such a dull character as the focus for a film that approaches four hours strongly tests the patience of the viewer. Yes, I made it through the movie, but it was touch and go for a while there. Many who have seen the film gush about Vittorio Storaro's lush and lavish cinematography, and yes, he helps create a visually stunning picture. For me, however, that's just not enough. While I expect such a long movie to drag at times, I would prefer that it offer a higher level of interest and intrigue than was evident in this flick. Still, even with all its faults, I ultimately liked The Last Emperor, albeit in a lukewarm kind of way.

The DVD Grades: Picture D-/ Audio C+/ Bonus D-

The Last Emperor appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Ugh what a terrible transfer!

No portion of the film emerged unscathed. Sharpness occasionally looked decent, but much of the film appeared soft and ill-defined. It became impossible to tolerate the majority of the movie due to the extreme examples of jagged edges and shimmering. These cropped up with stunning frequency, especially in any shots that showed movement. That made a lot of the flick an unstable, strobing mess.

Edge haloes came along for the ride as well, and I noticed more than a few source defects. Most of these came from moderately large white specks and spots, but grain could also be heavy. The flaws werent as dominant as Id fear given all the other problems, but they created many distractions.

Colors tended to be messy. The various hues usually looked runny and blotchy, and they failed to demonstrate real life or vivacity. Blacks were too dense and blended into the backgrounds, while low-light shots seemed rather dark and opaque. I often found it tough to discern the action in shadow scenes. I almost gave this atrocious transfer an F but thought it barely - just barely offered enough strengths to muster a D-. Its the worst transfer Ive seen for a Best Picture-winning film.

While the Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack for The Last Emperor didnt suffer from any significant flaws, it also failed to display any notable strengths, so it's a very mediocre affair. The soundfield lacked much breadth. The score opened up the front with decent stereo imaging, and various effects also broadened the forward spectrum in a modest manner. Dont expect these to show great activity or delineation, though. They gave us a reasonable sense of place and movement but not anything immersive or memorable. The surrounds added reinforcement of this information but not much else.

Audio quality tended to be drab. Dialog sounded intelligible and reasonably natural, but the score and the effects seemed slightly flat and canned. They failed to deliver much range or heft. They usually appeared somewhat thin and lackluster. That left the soundtrack with an acceptable but unmemorable C+.

This DVD features only the most perfunctory of extras. We get a trailer for the re-release of the director's cut, some decent cast and crew biographies, and some fairly interesting text production notes both on the DVD and in the booklet; the two sets of notes differ. That's it.

Overall, Artisan's DVD release of The Last Emperor offers a weak rendition of a pretty good - but looong! - film. While the audio is acceptable, picture quality is absolutely atrocious, and we get no substantial extras. This becomes a poor product.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.9565 Stars Number of Votes: 23
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